One of the things I love about Walden is that it is a philosophical throwback, an example of when philosophy was about how to live. Nowadays when people think about philosophy, particularly academic philosophy, they imagine it to be a spectacular waste of time. It's all about abstractions that have little to do with how we should live. Once upon a time, philosophy was about wisdom. Not so much anymore.
Walden, by contrast, stands firmly in the Socratic tradition, a treatise that interrogates (perhaps a bit rudely) the person on the street--sifting through our ways of life, goading us to think, and trying to clear the path toward the good life.
In Chapter 1 of Walden Thoreau states as much:
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.That's what I like about Walden. It was an experiment in living, yes, but it was a philosophical experiment. It was an attempt to discern the best way to live. Not just theoretically but practically.
In this regard, I think theology can learn a lot from Walden.
Truth be told, there is a lot of theology out there that seems to me to be a massive waste of time. I have little patience for this sort of work. A part of this, I think, is due to my training in the social sciences. Clarity and concision of expression are prized in our academic writing. Say what you mean, say it clearly, and move on.
These are virtues that seem to go missing in a great deal of philosophical and theological writing, where obscurity appears to be a sign of depth. A confession: There are a lot of theologians out there who are widely lauded among theological bloggers who I find to be a complete waste of time. (Rule of thumb: If Hegel and a Heidegger emerge early in the discussion you're in for a painful experience.)
It's my belief that there are no deep, inaccessible thoughts. There are only bad writers and thinkers. That and a lot of posturing. Any theological idea worth discussing can be expressed in simple, direct, and clear sentences. True, without the requisite background it might take a lot of simple, direct, and clear sentences, but that is all you should need as far as tools go. Speak plainly! Anything more than that is posturing, pretension, and the self-protective habits of the guild.
But not all theology is like this. I recall meeting my friend Mark for the first time and asking him what his academic discipline was. He responded, "practical theology." Good Lord, I thought, Isn't that an oxymoron? Apparently it wasn't. I'm not qualified to give you a precise definition of practical theology, but at root it's an attempt to do theology for the church. It's the attempt to use theology in prophetic and pastoral ways to help equip the church for mission.
This doesn't mean that practical theologians won't engage in speculative discussions about God. It's just not speculation for the sake of speculation. Generally, there is a pastoral aim. For example, Wittgenstein famously argued that a lot of the philosophical problems philosophers debate are actually pseudo-problems created by an imprecise use of language. Basically, a lot of philosophical "problems" are due to muddled thinking and sloppy word use. Proper philosophical discussion, then, according to Wittgenstein, was to be therapeutic, an effort to show embattled philosophers that their debates were misguided and useless.
I think we need to do a lot of that sort of work in our churches. Many Christians have tangled themselves up into theological knots. So a lot of practical theology is about helping untangle those knots so that all that mental energy can get redirected into mission. "To show," in the words of Wittgenstein, "the fly out of the fly-bottle." Good theology should bring peace and calm. But a lot of Christians are theologically anxious, confused and tense. Good theology within the church can help with this, therapeutically speaking.
There is much more to say about all this. But I'm not the one to say it. Practical theologians can weigh in as they see fit. My main point is simply this: I think theology would do well to take a cue from Walden. I think theology should help "solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." Particularly the problems faced by the church. And, in fact, many practical theologians are doing just that. May their tribe increase.